Masters Of Art – The Larger Vision

ART paid its respects to Giotto by a century of imitation. It was a busy century, and the many votaries of art differed as much in temperament as at any time, but at first sight all these differences seem subordinated to a general sameness, which, once examined, proves to be only a resemblance to Giotto, a resemblance in color, in conception, in manner, in everything but genius. Some of these Giotteschi, as these followers of Giotto are called, are his very opposite in temperament, as we shall see in a later chapter, but they scarcely realize it in their attempt to emulate his splendid success. Others had no pronounced temperament of their own, but followed slavishly, missing the point from mere lack of insight. Such men are Taddeo Gaddi and Giottino, or “lesser Giotto,” as we may perhaps translate the nickname. It is instructive to compare Giottino’s Crucifixion with that of Giotto. Everybody lines up on the front of the stage and looks, not at the Christ, but at the audience, which the second rate painter can never forget. The action loses all sincerity, all cleverness, all dramatic power. The same holds of Taddeo Gaddi’s Presentation of the Virgin, as compared with Giotto’s treatment of the same theme. The Temple is more ambitious, the setting more ample, but the action is subordinated, hollow and insincere. But obvious as are these differences, yet a distant glimpse of almost any wall painted in the fourteenth century, and the bright color, the freer grouping, and the livelier incident remind us of Giotto. It was a Giotto century.

But like all things else, the Giotto century came to an end. If we gaze upon some wall painted in the last years of this century, it no longer closely resembles the work of Giotto. The colors are changed, not without loss, if we compare them with the exquisite harmonies in pink and blue which greet us as we gaze upon the Giotto chapels of Santa Croce from some point far down the nave. They are soberer now, which of course means duller and less pleasing to the distant view, but perhaps they are more like the color of the real people and things about them. The pictures, too, are deeper than Giotto’s, and give us a feeling that the characters and incidents have much more room at their disposal, which reminds us that Giotto’s pictures seldom seem to be more than a couple of yards deep, so that in comparison with the later pictures they appear almost like flat decorations. Finally, these later painters aspire to greater realism in the way of accessories. Never would they be content with a mere hint at a temple, like that in Giotto’s Presentation of the Virgin, or with such symbols of mountains as those in his Flight into Egypt. Real buildings, real mountains, and real trees are a part of their program. All these changes may be summed up in one word, realism. All beings and objects that are represented must have their real character and be seen in their proper relations, a perfectly logical extension of Giotto’s program, but one whose value to art was perhaps too hastily assumed. This larger program required a larger stage for its enactment. The room of all outdoors was necessary for a program which embraced all nature. As we approach the end of the Giotto century, therefore, we find the painters struggling with the problems of perspective and endeavoring to deepen their picture. We find them also abandoning the bright color which Giotto had made such a delight, and painting in duller hues, for nature’s colors are not bright, for the most part, and he who would reproduce her faithfully must content himself with soberer colors.

The aims and attainments of art toward the year 1400 may best be studied in the works of Masolino, or Thomas the Less, as we may perhaps translate the name. We have in fact to do with a man of small caliber who registers rather the level of the current on which he is borne along than the independent level of personal genius. We find his work in Rome, in a little town of Northern Italy, and in the Brancacci Chapel of the Carmine in Florence, a chapel later to be exalted by the genius of another Thomas to the level of Giotto’s chapel in Padua and Michelangelo’s chapel in Rome. The Feast of Herod (B 130) and the Raising of Tabitha are typical both of the painter and of the time. Their striking characteristic is perspective, which is sometimes more ambitious than purposeful. City streets and buildings of various sorts are introduced, seemingly for no other purpose than to suggest space, the need of which is not always urgent. Contrasting these paintings with the work of Giotto, who never represented unnecessary space any more than he did unnecessary figures, we see clearly what the artists of the time were interested in.

If now we inquire by what means Masolino gives the impression of distance or space, we discover that the science of perspective was curiously one sided. Our impression of distance in nature comes from two sources. The first is the convergence of the lines of vision. When we look down a railroad track, the rails seem to converge, and we judge of distance by the amount of this convergence. The same principle applies when we see objects of fairly known size at varying distances. A man at a distance of a hundred yards makes a much smaller image upon our retina than one at a distance of ten yards, and we can measure the relative distance of the one and the other by taking account of this difference. Conversely, in painting a picture, where all objects, near and remote, must be represented upon a single canvas, the nearer figures must be represented larger and the remoter figures smaller, if they are to make their proper impression upon the eye. The art of so representing them is the art of linear perspective.

But distance affects our vision in other ways which under certain circumstances become more important. Thus, a man at a distance of ten yards is seen not only on a larger scale but more distinctly. We could distinguish the cut of his coat, perhaps even the kind of buttons upon it. At a distance of a hundred yards we could descry no buttons at all, and all other details would be blurred and indistinct. This is due, not merely to their minuteness, but to the obscuring effect of the atmosphere which is not altogether trans-parent. Indistinctness is therefore another suggestion and measure of distance, usually quite in harmony with that of size or convergence, but in some cases almost our sole reliance, as in distant landscapes, where, not knowing anything about the size of the various hills, we judge of their distance almost solely by the atmospheric haze, which not only obscures detail but covers all with a mantle of blue which is the atmosphere’s own color. The representation of this opacity and color of the atmosphere as modifying the appearance of all objects seen through it, is the art of aerial or atmospheric perspective.

It will be apparent at a glance that both these are necessary to the correct representation of nature, but that their relative importance varies greatly according to the distance represented. The blurring effect of distance is noticeable even in the range of an ordinary room, for you can see the pattern of the wall paper on the wall near you, much more distinctly than on the wall opposite, but the familiar size of all the objects, the regular lines of floor and ceiling, and so forth, cause us to rely much more upon linear perspective in such cases. On the other hand, for distant landscape effects, while a certain gradation in size is indispensable, we do in fact rely primarily upon atmospheric haze and color for our impression of distance, and atmospheric perspective becomes relatively important.

It has already been noted that Giotto’s pictures do not attempt to represent a depth of more than a yard or two. In such a space atmospheric perspective had no appreciable importance. As a matter of fact, Giotto seems never to have thought of such a thing. Usually we do not miss it, but in exceptional cases like the Flight into Egypt, the lack of it is grotesquely apparent in the mountains which dwindle into insignificant symbols within arm’s reach instead of looming large in a distant background, as they should do. But barring a few rare exceptions of this sort it is hardly an exaggeration to say that linear perspective is all that Giotto needs.

It will be at once apparent, however, that with the more ambitious program which we are now considering, atmospheric perspective becomes important. Masolino is obviously embarrassed to make his greater spaces seem natural, especially when he has landscape backgrounds, but he never guesses the true remedy. This is curiously illustrated in his Feast of Herod, where, in accord with the practice of the early Renaissance, he wishes to represent the burial of the martyred Baptist in the remote background, and so requires a background of far reaching mountain landscape. His mountain, however, refuses to stay in the background where it belongs, not being properly dimmed and blued, and so, to restrain its intrusiveness he paints in front of it a long receding arcade whose converging lines and diminishing arches speak to us convincingly of the distance which our sharply detailed mountain seeks in vain to deny. Nothing could better illustrate at once our artist’s weakness and his consciousness of it. In this Masolino is representative of his time. Art knew nothing of atmospheric perspective.

And, broadly speaking, this remained the limitation of Italian art. It mastered the subtleties of linear perspective as they had never been mastered before and have never been surpassed since. But even a Ghirlandajo, heir of all the ages and living in the fulness of time, could build a long, meaning-less wall running back into his landscape to show by its con-verging lines how deep the picture was, while Perugino and the great Raphael would pave acres of open space with square blocks of marble to give them a chance at the indispensable linear perspective. It is due to this same lack that we have the perpendicular landscapes of Benozzo Gozzoli, and Michelangelo’s stout assertion that landscapes had no place in art. It is due to this same limitation that the Italian art remained from first to last a study of the human figure, and the infinite possibilities of appeal to both sense and spirit, through the interpretation of nature in terms of color and light, remained closed to the Italian painters. They were unable to follow into this larger world the one man who for a brief moment opened wide the door.

That man was Masaccio. Like Masolino, he was christened Tommaso or Thomas. This was shortened to Maso, and in turn lengthened to Masaccio by the addition of a descriptive and not very complimentary ending. “Great hulking Tom,” Browning calls him, illustrating by this awkward means the ineptitude of our English tongue for those finer shadings of thought for which the Italian is famous. Born in 1402, his work in the Brancacci Chapel seems to have terminated in 1428, when at the early age of twenty-six his fame called him to Rome. He is never again heard of. The works in Rome attributed to him are unquestionably by another hand, and we may safely assume that he never reached that city. Somewhere, perhaps in the delirium of fever, in a wayside cottage, or stricken by a robber’s hand, big Tom’s luminous spirit went out in darkness, leaving men to wonder what it was that had made it so bright. Even farther an unkind fate pursued him, for the church in which he had begun his work never to be completed, was later destroyed by fire, and the Chapel was preserved not without serious defacement of his painting. It is through a veil which has darkened with the years that we gaze upon the larger vision of Masaccio.

The frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel are not the only works attributed to Masaccio, but they are so far the most important that the rest may be ignored. The most prominent is the Tribute Money (B 140), a masterly work admiringly studied and imitated by Raphael a century later. As a composition it seems at first not unlike Giotto’s, though a second glance will disclose in it the clear beginning of that complex composition in two dimensions of which Giotto knew nothing, and which Raphael was later to make his chief claim to fame. This is not the place, however, to penetrate into so recondite a subject. We will simply remember it as one more of those remarkable anticipations of later achievement of which so many are to be placed to his credit. It is sufficient to note the splendid group of men among whom the Master is so easily first, not by attribute or outward sign, but by inner character. We have here the second really significant study of the Christ, and Italian art has but one more in store for us.

The story is familiar. Peter comes to Jesus and tells him that the tax-gatherer has demanded payment of the poll tax and asks for instructions. Jesus, after taking advantage of the incident as usual, for his higher purpose, tells Peter to catch a fish, and he will find a coin in its mouth which he may give to the tax-gatherer for them both. In the center we see the central incident, including the instructions to Peter, which the latter follows by the motion of his hand. In the left background we see Peter catching the fish, and in the right foreground again, he is giving the coin to the tax-gatherer. Thus far nothing is remarkable, save general excellence, the dignity and naturalness of the figures which far surpass Giotto’s, and the fairly clear narration, in which, however, Giotto may claim superiority. In some particulars Masaccio at first seems to have fallen below his great predecessor, for in this picture he gives us three Peters and two tax-gatherers, a thing which the logical Giotto, with all his story-telling necessities, had refused to do. But Masaccio’s is a larger logic. He seems to realize that merely as a picture, three Peters are just as serviceable as Peter, James and John, while as a story, involving successive incidents, we are compelled to take the picture part by part, and so these simultaneous Peters really become successive Peters, and disturb us no more than do the successive mental pictures which are evoked in verbal story-telling by the repetition of the name. There is something to Giotto’s objection, but the true conclusion to be drawn from it is that painting should cease to tell stories altogether, and this is the conclusion that the painters always come to in the end. But if we must have stories, Masaccio was right in returning to the early practice which Giotto had abandoned, but which was now to endure down to the end of story-telling in Italian painting. We even find this repetition in Michelangelo’s great ceiling.

It is not till we turn from the figures and the story to the setting, that we discover the first of Masaccio’s great discoveries, atmospheric perspective. These hills and mountains, half defaced by time and the great conflagration, nevertheless unmistakably loom large and distant, as they should, upon the horizon. Such things are so commonplace in our day, so utterly a matter of course with us, and the bias of our partial observation is so overwhelmingly in favor of persons rather than inanimate things, that it is almost impossible to give due credit to an achievement which is not only indispensable to the larger purposes of art, but which is the more difficult because of this very bias. Like ourselves, the artist is apt to be more interested in the human than in anything else. Thus, Ghirlandajo is a minute observer of the human figure, but he paints an ox so that save for the horns you might mistake it for a horse. For such subtleties as atmospheric haze and color he had no appreciation whatever. The bias of his patrons of course tended to confirm his own. How much more all this in the case of Masaccio. Yet he, without a shadow of precedent, and without the encouragement of the slightest answering appreciation, sees earth and sky in their true mystery, and measures them with the measuring rod by which God has laid off the span of the heavens.

This, however, is only a beginning. In nothing had the deepening interest of the painters been more apparent than in the human figure, and of late, in the nude figure, influenced, no doubt, by the reviving study of the ancient sculpture. To this difficult problem Giotto had made no contribution. He represents the nude only when he must, as in the Crucifixion, and then but partially and feebly. Masolino, however, is more ambitious, as witness the Temptation (B 135), a subject deliberately chosen, it would seem, because it gave an opportunity to represent the nude, for it has no connection with the other subjects which he treats. His drawing is fairly correct as regards proportions, shapes, and so forth, but it will be a susceptible spirit that is inspired by Masolino’s picture. Two more inexpressive figures it would be difficult to imagine. There is no suggestion of action or life or of the inner structure which these imply.

This leads us to the reflection that drawing, modeling, and all kindred forms of expression may be correct without being good. Correct drawing is drawing which accurately represents proportion and shape. Good drawing, expressive drawing, drawing that vividly suggests life, action and passion, is not always secured by correct proportion and shape. It may even be secured without it. We may perhaps add that mere correctness is in itself but remotely related to the art faculty. It is largely a matter of drill and practice, and belongs rather to the science of art than to art itself. But expressive drawing, that is, the expression of action, passion and true meaning, through drawing, is something which lies much closer to the inspired imagination, which is the true source of art. No artist is fully equipped for his work who has not learned to draw correctly, and the teacher of drawing whose function it is to thus equip him, soon comes to regard this accomplishment as all important, even the very essence of art itself. But drawing is related to art in much the same way that rhetoric is to literature. There have been great writers who have used mixed figures and violated other wholesome laws of the art, as there have been others who have been faultless in these matters without winning fame or recognition. There is an observable tendency on the part of great artists to show a certain contempt for mere accuracy. We observe inaccurate drawing not merely in Giotto, whose skill was undoubtedly insufficient, but even in passed masters of the art like Botticelli and Michelangelo himself, whose deviations from nature are certainly intentional, and obey only the higher law of his own imagination. This higher law is the stumbling block of the art hack and the studio pedagogue who see in these deviations from nature’s commonplaces only a thing to censure, as also of the careless student who seeks in them a warrant for his own lawlessness and undisciplined caprice.

Masolino’s drawing is measurably accurate, but inexpressive and worthless as art. If we turn now to Masaccio’s Expulsion from Eden (B 139), we have an illustration of that other excellence which we have been considering. The figures of Adam and Eve are not altogether accurate. The veriest novice will notice the crooked leg of Adam. He may even, in complacency over his discovery, be quite superior to further investigation. But despite these inaccuracies, plainly mere inadvertence on the part of a mind absorbed in higher things, these figures are the first example of great drawing in Christian art. They pulse with life and throb with passionate action. In the impetuosity of his inspired feeling the artist has drawn a careless line or two, but the great drama is portrayed with startling intensity and truth. Notice the amazing suggestiveness of the Adam who hides his face in his hands, to suggest a grief which no art can express. Notice finally the angel, supreme among the angelic throng with which the art of Italy has enriched the imagination of the world. Underneath the inexorableness which speaks of the divine decrees there is the divine compassion which rescues tragedy from despair.

Closely akin to this new eloquence with which Masaccio endued the human figure is the third characteristic which glorifies his art. Up to this time we have seen that art, even in the hands of so great an artist as Giotto, is essentially objective. If a story is told, we see the act and the actors, but we are left to infer their feelings save in rare instances and to a slight degree. This means that we see the outside of the story, and the conflict of passions within, which are its essence, we are left to infer. Such art is anecdotal rather than dramatic. The essence of the dramatic is the interpretation of incident in terms of the feelings which cause it and which are caused by it. This is infinitely deeper and truer than any outside interpretation, can ever be, but it is correspondingly more difficult both to see and to express. Whether it is well for painting to venture into this subjective field is a much mooted question. Probably the subjective is more appropriate to Browning’s art than to that of Masaccio, but the Renaissance was less clear in its perception of the limits of the several arts, than it was rich in art impulse. In any case, this delving into the thoughts and intents of the heart was very much in line with the avowed program of the Renaissance, which was to know and reveal the uttermost truth about man.

It will be apparent at a glance that the Expulsion from Eden is much more a representation of passion than of action.

The whole emphasis has shifted, and we instinctively think of the passion as the principal thing.

Another striking example is found in a third picture by Masaccio in this same chapel, St. Peter baptizing the Pagans (B 144). The theme is hackneyed, and Peter has no peculiar excellence beyond that noted earlier. Our attention is not greatly arrested by the youth standing in the water, upon whose head the water of baptism is poured. But behind stands another youth, naked and waiting his turn. As he waits, he folds his arms and cowers in an unmistakable, shiver, suggestive alike of cold and of nervous excitement. As a part of the action this is nothing; as a revelation of feeling it is supremely expressive. Instantly we feel that these figures are not dummies to whom things happen from without, but they are human beings like ourselves in whose inner spirit is enacted the drama of life.

It is interesting to speculate as to what Florentine art might have become if this marvellous youth, instead of dying at the very threshold of opportunity had lived like Michelangelo through three generations of art activity. That he would have profoundly modified its development cannot for a moment be doubted, but just how or how far, it is difficult to estimate. That he would have anticipated the dramatic style and the wonderful subjective analysis of Leonardo by half a century is all but certain. But that he would have opened the eyes of artists to the marvellous beauty of the Tuscan landscape, perhaps even discovering its paramount importance in painting, a service which Leonardo and Michelangelo were quite unable to perform, is not among the impossibilities. If so, he would have changed the destiny of art. As it is, he stands midway between Giotto and Michelangelo, these two allotted long years for their task:, but he, dropping the pen he had but taken, and leaving it to feebler hands to write Italy’s message in the great book, before Michelangelo should write “Finis” upon the pages.